Thursday, 5 January 2012

Joy and Sorrow

Rachel Kessler was an author and facilitator.

“As we attempt to invite joy into the [situation],” she writes, “we must always hold these two paradoxes: the coexistence of light and shadow; and the joy that may be intimately associated with pain, fear or even anger. Perhaps the word ‘poignant’ best captures this quality of joy.”

A dig into Kessler’s work and writing reveals compelling ideas and approaches. She’s author of the Soul of Education and founder of the Passageworks Institute that runs social and emotional learning programmes in US schools.

“I don’t think I experienced real joy,” she writes, “until I was 34 years old. ... I knew that from that moment on, my life was about discovering and expanding the joy in my own life and in the people I touch. … In the weeks that followed, the word spirit emerged from my mind. I did not know what it meant, since I had experienced no religious upbringing… My encounter with joy had awakened my spirit.”

When we go into that space of joy and what we might call ‘spirit’, Rachel has found, we often find all sorts of things other than joy.

“If we focus on joy, images of suffering may rear up and even take over. So often when I ask students or teachers to think of a positive story, several are flooded first with sad memories; when I ask students to think of their gratitude, they can remember only what they want to complain about.” (Kessler, Soul of Education, 2000 p73 – 80).

In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Some expresses a similar relationship between joy and sorrow in the Dagara culture of Burkina Faso.

“Villagers gauge the amount of grief that is built up in them by the barometer of their joy. When emotion has been fully unloaded, the rush of joy that fills you up can last for days or weeks. When that feeling of joy subsides, grief is again building up and will soon require another release.”

He argues that we need regular opportunities to release our grief so that we may experience again the joy that resides behind it.

This suggests that joy lives in the heart and soul, tangled up with many other feelings. Practices that open up the heart and soul, by implication, need to be ready to accept and welcome all that may be found there.

By extension, “Joy ok, sadness not allowed” may be a superficial proposition which is neither useful, effective, attractive nor realistic.